Panda-monium at the National Zoo

Giant Panda at the National Zoo
Tian Tian getting too cozy with a rock.

It’s one thing to visit the Smithsonian’s National Zoo one month after the birth of a rare baby panda. It’s another to visit with four young children just released from a two-hour car ride.

That was my fate on a sunny day this past week – to help escort a mini-zoo around the National Zoo.

Two girlfriends from my hometown in Pennsylvania drove down to DC bringing the one friend’s two nieces and two nephews – aged 4, 8, 10, and 11. I met the six of them at the zoo along with the other friend’s daughter, who is attending college in DC and who worked as the kids’ babysitter this past summer.

So it was a four-way reunion: of an aunt and her sister’s kids; a mother and daughter; a babysitter and the babysat; and three childhood friends.

But all you really need to know is – four women spent half a day corralling and cajoling four little maniacs around some National Zoo animal exhibits.

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Red Panda at the National Zoo
The red panda — a.k.a. escape artist — was fun to watch!

Turns out, the baby panda would not be one of them. Like a true celebrity baby, the one-month old female is in seclusion with her giant panda mother, Mei Xiang, in the locked down Panda House.

But like a Real Housewife, Mei Xiang exploited her baby from the get-go – sharing their every move on the zoo’s round-the-clock “panda cam.”

She isn’t even paid! Doesn’t Mei Xiang know she could’ve made half a mill or more from an exclusive photo of her baby on the cover of People?

Our young charges didn’t miss seeing the panda baby, because the baby-daddy, Tian Tian, was on full display outside, acting out in front of his fans.

Typical celebrity dad, I thought, he has all the fun.

The kids went nuts over Tian Tian, who put on a show in his outdoor enclosure. He rolled head-over-rump down the steep embankment like a drunk. He waddled over to a tree to scratch his back against the bark.

The giant panda then staggered to a big rock, turned around and rubbed his butt against the stone like a vagrant on a mission. The kids squealed, pointed, and jumped up and down.

I stood there thinking: Who does this clown think he is?

But I was happy for the kids, who were now extra amped for the rest of our zoo visit.

Thank you, Tian Tian?

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Asian Elephant at the National Zoo
The Asian Elephants had room to roam.

We headed to the Asian Elephant exhibit. As soon as the kids saw the elephant footprints painted on the path to indicate the way, all four of them had to hop on EVERY SINGLE painted footprint.

We arrived at the overlook for the elephants, and the kids ooed and awed. Then they started playing monkey-bars with the railing.

The kids climbed the guardrails constantly. It was only the combined vigilance of aunt, babysitter, and babysitter’s mother that helped keep the four kids from climbing a little bit less.

You’ll notice I didn’t include myself in that effort. I don’t pretend to have any babysitting skills.

We turned around and elephant-footprint hopped our way back to see the big cats. On our way we checked out the red pandas, which the kids liked because they circled close by and their brick-red coat made them easy to spot.

The big cats were a little disappointing, because it was midday and they were mostly resting. The bigger hit was a snack.

I bought a box of popcorn, and the moment I offered to share it with the kids, several tiny hands plunged into the box like it was filled with gold. They kept thanking me for the treat.

They needed lunch. After stopping to eat at an outdoor concession, the kids soon strayed from our table to chase the surrounding pigeons. They were fascinated by one limping around with a mangled foot.

Who needs a baby panda when you’ve got a trashy, club-footed pigeon to chase?

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The afternoon highlight was the visit to the Great Ape House. As we entered, the kids moaned about the smell like it was killing them, then they ran toward the sight of the gorillas and orangutans in large enclosures behind glass barriers.

The 4- and 8-year-old pressed against the glass and followed the apes’ every move, while the 10- and 11-year-old spoke of how much the great apes were just like us.

Talk about “through a child’s eyes…” I felt my heart burst a little.

Orangutan at the National Zoo
The kids saw something familiar in the great apes, like this Orangutan.

When we went back outside, all four kids played a new game: taking a gulp from their water bottles and gargling the Star-Spangled Banner. Over and over.

And over again.

It was the babysitter’s idea; she just felt like turning up the dial.

Toward the end of our visit, we approached a merry-go-round. The 4-year-old’s face brightened, then she turned toward the aunt with her pinched eyebrows pleading.

It was getting late and the aunt had to say no. Squeaky protests ensued. The little girl stomped away, her pink and green dress swirling with each hard step, her poodle-purse bouncing off her side.

Her aunt stopped her and they spoke quietly. The 4-year-old’s dark mood passed.

I asked the kids to name their favorite animal among the ones we saw that day. At first, the 11-year-old said “gorilla,” but then he said “no, maybe the panda.”

I said: “Just pick the first one that pops into your head, don’t think.”

He said: “Yeah, I don’t want to think on a non-school day.” He settled on the panda.

The 10-year-old picked the gorilla, the 8-year-old picked the panda, and the 4-year-old chose the lion.

Later, when I hugged the kids to say good-bye, each one’s hair was drenched and their shirts were soaked. What the–?

I wasn’t there when the kids had discovered a mister along the path, but they weren’t about to be just misted. There are no half-measures in their world.

I waved good-bye as the mini-zoo left the National Zoo. I walked to the Metro, missing them right away.